Social media evangelist rouses HIMSS CIO Forum

Physicians don't have enough time to fully educate their patients during patient visits. Therefore, they should use social media and every other online communication avenue to do a better job for their patients. That was the message that pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson delivered today to energized attendees at the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives CIO Forum on Monday.

A dedicated proponent of new media, Swanson practices what she preaches as a part-time physician at the Everett (Wash.) Clinic, Wash. She blogs as Seattle Mama Doc on the Seattle Children's Hospital website and also makes brief videos about health issues. When her patients' parents have a question she can't answer during a visit, she refers them to any relevant blog posts and videos.

In addition, Swanson is activce on Twitter and Facebook and uses the social media sites to interact with her patients, although she does not discuss any particular patient's health problems. "My patients meet me on my blog, on Twitter and YouTube," she said at the forum, part of the annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society conference in Las Vegas this week.

Swanson said physicians have to get over their phobia about messaging patients online, whether through secure e-mail or social media. Eighty percent of Internet users are looking up health information online today, and one in five of these consumers goes online looking for someone who has a health problem like theirs--which explains the popularity of sites such as PatientsLikeMe.

Hospitals could take advantage of this desire to connect by starting disease-specific social networks on their patient portals, she said. While she acknowledged that many physicians are concerned that these sharing networks may propagate false information, doctors can't prevent this from happening unless they participate in these online group, she said.

Swanson concedes that physicians are already busy and reluctant to spend time online with patients in their spare time. She didn't have any suggestions about how social networking would help their work-life balance. But online contact with patients can help doctors provide better care, she said. In addition, she pointed out, many minor problems can be handled through secure e-mail and video messaging, freeing doctors to do more for patients who really need to be seen.

Swanson blasted the American Medical Association for its conservative policy on social media. The AMA's recommendations are "extremely cautionary and I don't believe in them," she said.

Her own rules on using social media are pretty straightforward:

  • Never discuss patient specific conditions
  • Don't post anonymously
  • Remember that everybody's watching
  • Be nice

While admitting that many physicians won't take to social media until payment reform makes it financially viable, Swanson insisted that doctors must be proactive in this area. "Let's not be left behind. Let's join our patients where they are."

To learn more:
- visit Swanson's blog
- see the AMA's social media guidelines